Lifting Peace into my trembling hands, I hold my breath and commit this image to memory, how the iridescent dewdrops scatter the sunlight over the flat of my blade, a deluge of melded pinks and blues with hints of yellows, greens, and purples which shift with every bump and jolt of my unsteady grip. So reminiscent of my latest attempt at a Keystone, I watch the colours and reflect on what emotions they evoke for future reference, though I should go over this again when I’m not woozy with delight. Too afraid to blink for fear the Water Chi will dissipate, I stare until my eyes grow dry and cheeks strained, wearing a smile so wide I can hear the wind whistling between my teeth.
So this is what success feels like. It’s nice. I should succeed more often.
After circumstances and biology conspire and force me to blink, my joy redoubles when I find the Water Chi still there and I find the courage to stand in place. Doing my best to keep Peace level, my careful efforts prove unnecessary when my leg cramps up and I stumble in place. Despite a near vertical dip, the glimmering beads remain affixed to the sword as if magnetized in place, a scattering of droplets across the metal surface rather than coming together as a whole. Seems odd that my Water Chi is peaceful and tranquil but not united like I’d envisioned it, but I’ll take two out of three for now. Maybe I didn’t put enough Chi in the effort, though I lost a good tenth of my Core in crafting this half-teacup of water. The important thing is I can manifest Water Chi, and while it took a lot of effort to produce so little liquid, not to mention how it has no real applicable use (yet), this is merely the first of many steps towards becoming awesome.
Next up is to do what Guan Suo suggested and figure out how to use Chi to manipulate my Water Chi, then work on using Chi-infused water, but all things in good time. For now, I should share my success with Yan and Song.
Tearing my eyes away from my sword, I glance around in search of the lovely ladies, but they are nowhere to be found. Viyan, Birca, and Argat stand in a loose triangle around me, their heads sweeping back and forth to keep me safe while I parse through the mysteries of the Martial Path. Not to be outdone, four Death Corps soldiers also stand guard a little further out, while soldiers continue to train and spar on the fields behind me. BoShui is still hard at work, now trading pointers with Dastan and looking good while doing it. Though Dastan has improved by leaps and bounds over this past year, BoShui has come into his own since binding his third and fourth Spiritual Weapons, a pair of honest to goodness combat boots. Well, greaves would be the technical term, a pair of fitted, metallic footwear complete with sharp edges, barbed spikes, and most importantly, shin protection. Using his equally pointy gauntlets to defend and devastating kicks to attack, BoShui fights like a different warrior now that he doesn’t have to risk losing a foot every time he kicks out, a minor change which makes him a warrior to be reckoned with. Where he once ranked amongst the weakest in our little clique, he’s closed the gap significantly and could probably give Zian and Song a good run for their money considering how deftly he dismantled my offensive rush during our spars earlier today.
In my defence, I’m a slow learner and still suck at duelling with Unity. I might do better with Peace and Tranquility, but if I’m being honest, probably not by much.
Double-checking to make sure the Water Chi is still there (it is), I check the sun and only now realize it’s been hours since I sat down. Yan’s probably having lunch now, a hot meal cooked over a portable stove instead of the hardtack and dried jerky I’ve been eating all week. Kind as she is, she would’ve offered to share with Song who would’ve happily accepted since she hates eating travel food even more than I do, and Guan Suo would’ve undoubtedly joined them along with Ping Ping and the rest of my pets. The big turtle is much less clingy of late, probably because I’m overfeeding her with Chi Tea, but that’s neither here nor there. I should wait until after lunch before showing off my new skills, because if I go see Yan and Song now, I won’t be able to turn down a hot meal or trying to partake in a different kind of treat.
What a pair Yan and Song make, one pale and angelic with a devilish personality while the other is a busty, bronze-skinned goddess who appears aloof yet is bursting with nurturing affection…
Taking a deep breath to cool my ardour, I flex my leg muscles and wait for the swelling to subside before coming to my feet with Peace still held flat in both hands. Though I know the Water Chi is stuck fast to the metal, I’m still irrationally worried about spilling it before someone else sees and then never succeeding ever again and wondering if I’d imagined the whole thing. Unfortunately, before I can give voice to my achievements, Argat Sends, “Good, you’re conscious.” Though casually spoken, his words are laced with tension. “Possible trouble. Check the approaching soldier to my left, the one marching like he’s on parade. He’s wearing Sentinel leathers, but I don’t recognize him. Do you?”
Usually prone to distraction, the monkey brothers are surprisingly professional once they’re separated, but it’s possible Argat is taking things a little too far. So he doesn’t recognize a soldier, we have over two-hundred new arrivals, and not to be racist or anything, but most of them look alike. While it’s possible to distinguish the people of the Empire by province, the newbies all hail from Sanshu and share a few key similarities, namely being black hair, broad faces, and squarish jaws, all of which amounts to sharper, more angular features than the people of Central. Add in the definitive marks of perfection that separate Martial Warriors from mundane citizens, not to mention the near identical uniforms, and you end up with a lot of faces blending together, even with the picture perfect memory of an Expert.
Deciding it’s best not to dissuade Argat’s uncharacteristic vigilance, I slowly move to look but get distracted by the sight of Chun Yimu Junior scurrying over with a terror-stricken expression, his shirt soaked with sweat at the collar and pits. Usually, his truncheon hangs from his belt, dangling from the sword-catcher jutting out from its hilt, but today, he clutches the slim, square-headed weapon in a white-knuckled death grip as he moves towards me like a man possessed. If it were anyone else, I would assume he was here to spar, but Junior is a typical entitled noble, a lazy bum who half-asses everything he can get away with and more than he shouldn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever caught him training when he could be dicing instead, but I’m reluctant to come down hard on account of his namesake. I wasn’t the best underling back in Sanshu, and while most of my insults were unintended, I feel like I owe Chun Yimu Senior a lot for not taking my words to heart. Besides, I misjudged the new Guard Captain of Sanshu; back then, I thought he ordered me out on a suicide mission, but I now know he set me up for success. It’s almost laughable how I thought two-to-one odds were ‘unfair’. I’d kill for those odds now, and anything less than five-to-one feels like a walk in the park.
A long, exhausting, deadly walk in the park, but a walk nonetheless.
Regardless of his worth, there’s something about Junior’s demeanour that throws me off, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. For some reason, I find my gaze sliding away when I try to study him, but it’s like trying to track an erratic fly even though he’s human and moving directly towards me at a hurried walk. Keeping him in my line of sight, I scan the surroundings to check for threats and spot not one, but three unfamiliar soldiers all converging on my position. Opening my mouth to speak, the words freeze in my throat as my peripheral vision picks up a previously unnoticed detail.
Junior isn’t alone.
Turning towards him, I wonder how I could ever overlook Junior’s companion, a gaunt, hunchbacked figure shrouded in a misty haze of shadow, with pale, pock-marked skin and grungy wisps of hair hanging loosely from his scalp like dead grass left out to dry. As I lock eyes with the mysterious stranger, his pupils widen ever so slightly in surprise, but only for an instant before he reacts with ruthless expertise. Twin ebony daggers appear in his gnarled hands and his lips stretch into a feral grin, relishing the violence he is about to inflict as his weapons lance towards Junior’s neck and liver.
My feet move to intercept the Defiled assassin before I can think twice. Executing Balance on Windy Leaf, the Hammer strikes and Anvil rings my Amplified steps propel me into battle, showering my startled guards in an obscuring cloud of dust and dirt. Upon my approach, Junior’s eyes widen in fear as he futilely screeches, “Wait,” though how he knows the Wraith is about to kill him, I couldn’t say. Time slows once adrenaline and Enlightenment kick in and a single second stretches into excruciating eternity as I watch the Wraith’s dagger inch closer and closer to Junior’s vitals while knowing I won’t reach him in time. Five steps versus fifteen centimetres, the outcome is obvious, and the rational part of my mind considers leaving Junior to his fate. Even if it was worth risking my life to save a worthless good-for-nothing slacker, it’s clear I can’t save him and where there’s one Wraith, there are bound to be more, but even one is a dangerous opponent.
Though not the most skilled combatants, Wraiths are masters of stealth and assassination, and it wouldn’t surprise me to know there were more lurking nearby, hidden and waiting for a chance to strike. A nick of their tainted blades is enough to incapacitate a regular soldier, for it takes dedicated practice to purge poisons while simultaneously putting up a fight. Even when immediately expelled, the aftereffects of the poison can leave all but the hardiest of Martial Warriors weak and feeble for days, if not weeks after the fact, barring attention from an experienced Healer who knows how to mitigate the nerve damage.
That, or possibly anyone who knows how to use Panacea, which Junior most certainly does not. Also, most people die when stabbed in the throat or liver, much less both, but I can’t just sit back and do nothing. Junior might be not be one of my best, but he’s still one of my own, and I’ll fight tooth and nail to save any of my people.
Guided by instinct, I bring Peace to bear with a flick of my wrist and the beaded droplets of Water Chi converge on its metallic surface before arcing off into the air, a united, glistening stream shooting unerringly towards the Wraith’s head. Reacting faster than I would’ve given him credit for, Junior dives away from my oncoming charge just as the Wraith recoils from the projectile, a combination that saves the spoiled noble’s life. Sputtering as the stream splashes into his eyes, the Wraith draws back and wipes his face in panic, panic which soon turns to confusion as my Water Chi dissipates into nothingness and leaves him dry, unharmed, and utterly bewildered by my seemingly nonsensical actions.
Okay, let’s be clear. This was not a failure. I told my Water Chi to be water, and nothing else. I shouldn’t have expected it to do more, nor should I be embarrassed when it didn’t. I didn’t craft it to melt faces or pierce skulls, all I asked it to do was be water, and it pulled it off perfectly.
Praying my cheeks aren’t as red as they feel, I burn with embarrassment even as Peace smashes through the Wraith’s ribs. So surprised he can’t even put up a fight, the would-be assassin dies instantly and his corpse sails away as I stop to stand guard over Junior. Knowing our fates could’ve easily been reversed if I hadn’t seen him coming, I keep my eyes peeled for more assailants and shout, “Wraiths in the camp!”
Having trained for this scenario, my soldiers take up the warning and calls ripple throughout the camps, including a series of blown horns to warn our allies around Sinuji. Meanwhile, my soldiers freeze in place to take careful stock of their surroundings, watching for the killers lurking in our midst. Wraiths aren’t invisible, they’re just difficult to spot unless you’re actively looking and know what to look for. They use a modified version of Concealment, an External Chi skill that causes unwary observers to overlook their presence with a Jedi mind trick or something. Where their version differs from regular Concealment is that they also create a visible, shadowy shroud that muffles any sound they make and eliminates their scent, while also protecting them from being targeted by Aura. This makes it so even though most Wraiths are feeble and sickly in comparison to other Defiled, they can sneak past most guards and don’t need an Aura-capable warrior to assassinate Experts, allowing them to kill and slink back into the shadows to slip away in relative safety.
Still, their skills aren’t perfect. With everyone in camp standing still, it’s much more difficult for the Wraiths to move about, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Soon enough, Argat makes a move and impales a Wraith not ten meters away from me, barely giving the dead assassin a second look before resuming his wide-eyed surveillance, his back straight but shoulders relaxed as if he were watching for birds instead of Defiled. Next to score a kill is Siyar, who doesn’t even look as he decapitates a Wraith who’d already moved past him with a backhanded strike. My respect for him jumps yet another notch, because not only did he spot the Wraith, he did so without being noticed and assassinated the assassin, skills which mark him as more than the humble smuggler he claims to be.
Having lost three of their brethren, the remaining Wraiths appear to reach a silent consensus and move all at once, rushing towards me to take my life and attacking anyone who’s in their way. With only sword in hand, I ready to welcome their charge only to find my fun interrupted by Viyan, Birca and the Death Corps crowding around, ready to defend me with their lives if need be. Before I can order them aside, Argat hurls himself into the fray with spear a twirling, smashing through the Defiled hatchet men in a stunning display of supernatural grace and dexterity. In the blink of an eye, the battle comes to an end and six Wraiths lay dead in the grass, while Argat resumes his relaxed vigil after making sure I’m still within spear’s reach. Replaying the scene again in memory, I spot a level of forethought and economy of motion which makes his actions seem relaxed and casual, as if all part of a routine he’d performed a thousand times before instead of what was most likely a unique combination of movements he’d come up with on the fly.
And to think, Argat is considered a slacker among the Bekhai…
With nine Wraiths dead, the camp falls still once more to search for more assassins and long seconds pass in tense, heart-pounding silence, interrupted only by the groaning of the wounded. My wounded. The realization hammers home and I shove my defenders aside, snarling, “Eyes open, but see to the wounded. Don’t let them bleed or choke out.” Kneeling to check on Junior, I spot a patch of blood across his lower back, telling me he didn’t quite escape unscathed like I’d thought. Mentally apologizing for thinking he stayed down because he’s a coward, I turn him onto his uninjured side and make small talk while removing his leather armour. “Speak to me soldier. You injured anywhere besides your flank? You hit your head on the way down?”
Gasping like a fish, Junior’s reply is too quiet for me to hear, but at least he’s talking. When his voice dies down, I keep talking, as the important thing is to keep him engaged and conscious. “That was a damn close thing with the Wraith poised behind you. Didn’t think I’d save you, but you’re faster than you look. Damn fine awareness soldier. Proud to have you with me.” Cutting away his shirt reveals a nasty gash on his flank, not deep enough to be life-threatening on its own but already blacked and necrotic from the poison. Knowing his Healing skills are too shitty to save him, I pull a leather strap out of my pouch and tuck it into his mouth. “That said, I’d like to keep you around a little longer, so bite down and don’t move.”
Because this is going to hurt.
Grabbing my wrist with more strength than expected, Junior’s eyes go wide with a mixture of fear and determination. Spitting out the leather, he croaks, “Protect him.” Swallowing hard, he closes his eyes and shouts, “Protect Falling Rain!”
Gotta say, I’m pretty moved by his loyalty there. Injured and struggling to breathe, yet he still has the strength to tell his comrades to look after me. “Don’t you worry, I’ll be fine,” I say, gently tucking the strap back into his mouth and signalling Birca to help hold him down. “Now let’s get you fixed up before this poison spreads.” Without waiting for an answer, I wait until Birca is ready before using Peace to carve off a strip of blackened flesh and toss it aside before the poison can spread to my fingers. No one knows where they get their poison from, but it probably has something to do with Demon Ichor.
Huh… Could I neutralize Wraith poison with counterfeit Heavenly Water? Sheepishly grabbing my waterskin, I use a quarter of the Chi inside my Core to turn it into Chi-infused water, then focus and turn it into (what should presumably be) counterfeit Heavenly Water. Pouring it over Junior’s bleeding wound, I see no change in his condition, so I also rinse my hands while holding them over the strip of removed flesh. Again, I spot no obvious changes, but the poison burns itself out quickly with nothing to feed on, so this isn’t definitive.
Leaving Viyan to finish patching Junior up, I move on to the next wounded soldier for more testing. While there are no immediate results, I figure it couldn’t hurt to keep trying, and when my waterskin runs dry, I rinse a few more soldier’s wounds with just regular water and leave the remaining ones untouched. If Junior and the others who got the counterfeit Heavenly Water treatment recover faster than the others, then I’ll know there’s an effect. If Junior’s group and the rinsed group both recover faster than the unrinsed, then it probably means regular water helps counteract Wraith poison, and if they all recover in the same time frame, then I’ll know my efforts were futile.
While I’ve been rinsing wounds and offering words of encouragement, the rest of my retinue has remained motionless and alert, but seeing as there have been no further sightings of Wraiths, I figure it’s okay to stand down and send messengers to check on the other camps while telling Rustram to write a report for Colonel Hongji. Though Argat mentions he has an issue he wants to talk about, I beg him to leave it for a few minutes as I rush to my poop tent to do what one does. It’s not an uncommon reaction to the post battle stress, and while I usually try to wait until the post-battle rush has come and gone, there’s no holding it in today. Honestly, this is one of the worst parts of being a soldier; a diet of jerky and hardtack does horrible things to my insides, and while eating enough pickled vegetables can take care of blockage issues, it’s a little too effective, if you know what I mean.
Overruling Argat’s concerns and leaving him with my Death Corps escorts outside, I awkwardly shuffle into the tent with butt-cheeks clenched and do a quick sweep for hidden assassins. Overly paranoid thanks to Argat’s warnings, I poke around the tent for a bit and almost leave things too late, forcing me into a desperate scramble to drop-trou and squat over the hole. At this point my intestinal tenant decides it is not, in fact, going to come shooting out, and instead takes its sweet time vacating the premises. Knowing how sensitive Martial Warrior ears are, I close my eyes, choke back a groan, and give a hundred and ten percent effort, but alas all is not well and I soon grow light-headed from pushing too hard.
Long seconds later, my stubborn tenant only halfway out and I decide this is a good time to hit pause and take a breather. Opening my eyes, I mop my brow and realize my legs aren’t trembling with effort, but rather the ground is shaking beneath my feet. Not two meters away, the dirt floor splinters apart and a creature of nightmares emerges from the ground with a terrible shriek of victory, its pale, wrinkled flesh covered in what I pray is mud. Shouts sound from outside the tent, but seeing how I’ve literally been caught with my pants around my ankles, I know that even if Akanai herself were standing guard outside, she wouldn’t be able to move fast enough to save me from this mole-Demon.
Well… at least I’m not constipated anymore.
|Previous Chapter||Table of Contents||Next Chapter|